Sunday, June 7, 2009

Nothing like an evening stroll on a movie lot...

Last night I met a Universal coworker/former scene partner/friend and his partner for an employee screening of Land of the Lost. This is not a movie I would have ever considered even seeing on dvd, but since the screening is free, and we have to tell our guest it filmed in Stage 27 and I feel really cool being on the lot, I went... Oh, and I had nothing else to do on a Friday night. I tried to have an open mind and it was slightly better than expected, but still not my cup of tea. Neither Will Farrell nor the plot did anything for me. The dinosaur named Grumpy and Matt Lauer's cameo were both fantastic though!

After the movie we decided to find Stage 1 where Conan O'Brien is now filming Late Night, since the tram is now going a different direction to show the guests. It's probably adding three to five minutes to the tour and taking us by sound stages that we know nothing about. The funny thing about movie lots, or Universal's at least, is that the sound stages do not go in order. For example, Stage 5 is next to Stage 16. Also, what appears to be a single building might house or connect multiple stages, so it's very confusing. One of our stall clips features Jason Alexander talking about getting lost his first day of filming Seinfeld.

[The two photos below are things seen on the front lot that I found random and amusing.]

Anyway, we walked in circles for a while and finally decided that Conan's new theatre must be in an unmarked building right up front by one of the gates. As tour guides, my friend and I have "All Access Passes" and can technically go anywhere on the lot as long as we're not interrupting filming. Many employees walk the lot for exercise, but we were both still hesitant to use our privilege, especially since it was 9 p.m. and we had a guest with us. But after passing a couple security guards without incident, we became braver! We decided we would walk a bit more, and my friend decided he had to go to the restroom. Restrooms only accessible to the outside were open on one of the stages and I said, "I'll go too, just to say I went in Stage 24!"

My friend wanted to walk around inside Stage 28, which still has some of the Paris Opera House sets from the original Phantom of the Opera (1925); it's supposedly haunted by Lon Cheney. I was relieved when all the doors were locked. We journeyed past the production bungalows and I took a picture with the giant Mr. Potato Head that sits by the Hasbros offices and with the Alfred Hitchcock silhouette painted by the door of his former bungalow, #5195. (I know I stress my anonymity on this blog, but I think the quality of this picture is so poor, it's no big deal.)

We walked behind the sound stages the the tram passes to the lesser seen, older ones, where a production crew was striking a set (tearing it down). We noticed at least five different stages that were labeled for Desperate Housewives, indicating which sets were inside.

At every point I felt like perhaps we shouldn't go any farther, but there there would be one more thing we wanted to see. That is especially true of the ongoing construction of the metropolitan sets. We gazed up at the half-built structures and pondered if they'd be done this month, as the rumors say. They seem much larger, taller and more substantial than before. Then again, my friend and I had been employed only a week and barely experienced them before the fire.

At this point we had officially crossed from the front lot to the back lot, where (as we tell our tour guests) "the world is just around the corner." And so are the coyotes and bobcats! No sooner did my friend mention them as the main reason we're discouraged from walking around back there at night, did we hear them howl! I called my partner, who was fast asleep in Ohio, and he assured me that they're more afraid of us...

By this time security had driven by us a couple times, but after the first flash of our badge, didn't even slow down. We were smart enough not to walk into any of the construction but rather follow the road beside it which eventually leads to an intersection of sorts between Six Points Texas, the Red Sea and New York Street. From there, we could see another section of the Metro sets were more accessible; we carefully walked in and decided it was being used for filming. It was free of construction and complete with set dressings. As we proceeded farther in, we found ourselves in Court House Square. COURT HOUSE SQUARE! As in, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Back to the Future and now Ghost Whisperer.

One of the misconceptions after the fire was that it was destroyed, but it was not. The actual Clock Tower building and a row of facades adjacent to it were not touched. I literally ran up the steps of the Clock Tower. We stood in front of Melinda's antique shoppe called The Same as it Never Was. We pondered if the cracks in the sidewalk were real or made to look that way by a set designer.

Even though the moon was almost full above us, there were few other lights and it makes me sick that my phone's camera couldn't capture any of it. As I wrote after my first walking tour of the lot as a new guide, the feeling of being ON THE LOT is incredible. I mean, just standing where great actors have stood is amazing and feeling the energy of a place that holds all the potential in the world is indescribable! It's remarkable how real the facades look while still holding the magic of being transformed into anything, anywhere and in any time period. At the same time, it was eery. That, obviously, came from the darkness and my general jumpiness. I felt like at any time something could creep out of a shadow, be it a coyote, a security guard, a Ghost Whisperer ghost, or the Creature from the Black Lagoon! One of the faux brown stones had its door standing open; it was gaping blackness that sent a chill up my spin!

We decided there was a possibility our cars could get locked in the garage, so we headed back toward the front lot. On the way, were made a loop around a large, unmarked building, and decided it must be the infamous film vault. That is something we're not allowed to talk about on the tour; during our training they said they'd point it out to us, but never did. Behind it is a smaller two story building with several outer doors on both levels, like a motel. It's industrial, raw, old look seemed more like jail sells to me. First we thought they were old dressing rooms, but none I would ever want to use. You could tell it was old by the door nobs and each door had a light by it, so we decided they must have been dark rooms for film developing. Again, very creepy.

My friend had to use the restroom again and so we went to one right behind Six Points Texas. With the ominous moon above us and what looked like an old western ghost town before us, it was certainly unsettling, but so, so cool! We were on the opposite side of the sets than what the trams drive by. It's amazing how many different environments can be created in such a small space.

Finally, we walked back into the front lot and once again by the production bungalows. Like peeping toms, we found ourselves taking a closer look! Again, we only ever drive by them. Upon closer inspection we found an influential casting office where we both plan to hand deliver headshots! We unsuccessfully tried to locate Ron Howard's parking spot by the Imagine Entertainment offices, but did find Marc Platt's by Reveille (the producer of Wicked and Ugly Betty) and legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis (he won an Oscar for La Strada and produced hannibal and the original King Kong). Their offices were both amazing; yes, we literally looked in the windows.

My friend desperately wanted to walk down into the Amblin Entertainment bungalows, but I would not. Amblin is Stephen Spielberg's production company; his offices are sort of behind the others. Though you can clearly see them from the tram if you know where to look, even nodding in their direction is grounds for immediate termination! My friend gave me crap for picking the jasmin that is now filling my bedroom with a wonderful aroma and he warned me several times not to put these pictures on Facebook. I replied, "this flower will not get us in trouble, but I like my job and my clean criminal record too much to step foot toward Spielberg's bungalows!"

Nearly two and a half hours after the movie ended, we finally left the studio. We had to have walked a two or three miles. I would have never guessed a stupid Will Ferrell film could develop into such an inspiring evening! Being in that environment makes me want to learn all there is to know about the history of Universal and it makes me want to devote all the time and energy I have to becoming the best possible actor. Well, I guess that's laughable at this moment, as I'm blogging at 5 a.m. and I have a rehearsal at 1 p.m. for a show that opens in less than two weeks with a script I received only a day ago!

Nonetheless, I love being a tour guide...!

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